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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Years ago, a woman paid a bribe to Polish officials to obtain an exit visa for her and her six-year-old son to travel to the United States. Her son was Tom Malinowski, and he would grow up to become the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Speaking recently about this simple act of corruption at American University Washington College of Law, Malinowski wondered, “Is corruption really so bad?” After all, it brought him to the United States and secured his future. Devil’s advocates argue that corruption greases the wheels of commerce and facilitates political deals. Its dividends can be used to build great art and architecture. Besides, self-interest is part of human nature. Malinowski ultimately rejects those arguments and concludes that corruption really is “so bad.” And it is so bad because of its connection to human rights.

Authoritarian regimes use corruption to gain and keep power by strategically distributing the spoils. Grand corruption steals billions of dollars that could provide for education, health, and other basic human needs. It leads to the violation of civil and political rights (free speech, non-discrimination, fair trial, political participation) and socioeconomic rights (property, education, health, food, housing). Some thought leaders, such as Matthew Murray and Andrew Spalding of the Brookings Institution, argue that freedom from corruption should be a human right in and of itself. Either way, corruption distorts the relationship between citizen and state and is intimately linked to the violation of fundamental rights and freedoms. It also fuels political instability and armed conflict. According to Malinowski, corruption matters as much as any threat the United States faces because it is related to all of them.

Corruption can also be an authoritarian regime’s biggest vulnerability. Governments cannot justify thievery on the basis of national security when faced with popular discontent or mass demonstrations. Malinowski cited examples of how more and more people are saying no to corruption. The FBI’s action against FIFA officials was widely applauded because when citizens heard about soccer officials accepting kickbacks, they thought about their local police officers asking for money to make a parking ticket go away. Corruption was a primary motivating factor in the Arab Spring. Though he did not reference the specific example, Malinowski’s words brought to mind Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit and vegetable vendor from Tunisia. When Bouazizi could not find enough cash to reclaim equipment that had been illegally confiscated by local police, he set himself on fire — the desperate act of protest that sparked the Arab Spring. Murray and Spalding note, “As Bouazizi’s act exemplifies, perhaps the highest cost of corruption today is that it deprives individuals the opportunity to start and grow a business, accumulate capital, and generate new wealth.”

Malinowski offered two ways to help combat corruption in his talk, part of American University’s annual U.S. and International Anti-Corruption Law Summer Program. First, governments must work to prevent dictators from enjoying the spoils of corruption while in power. One way to do this is to prevent the registration of anonymous shell companies. The rules proposed by the Treasury Department, which would require that banks and other financial institutions know and verify the beneficial owners of the companies they service, would serve as a good start.  White House-proposed rules would go even farther by requiring the Internal Revenue Service to collect information on the beneficial owner of any legal entity organized in any state and allowing law enforcement to access that information.

Second, Malinowski stressed the need for the anti-corruption and human rights communities within civil society to work together toward common goals, such as protecting the independence and integrity of judicial systems. In addition to cooperating with each other, civil society organizations should develop new expertise to fight corruption, such as financial forensics to detect money laundering. The private sector can play a role in these anti-corruption efforts both by setting a good example through transparency and good corporate governance, and by engaging in civil society initiatives to reduce corruption.

So long as corruption continues to flourish, autocrats will be able to remain in power, citizens will suffer from rights violations, and entrepreneurs like Bouazizi will not be given a fair chance to earn a living and participate in legitimate economic activity. Viewed in this context, the simplest act of corruption—that single bribe—is not a benign act but rather part of a larger threat to governance, human rights, and rule of law.

Peako Jenkins is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.